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January 13, 2006

A key liberal thinker: The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism - Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism
by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
Pp. xi+341. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005
Hardback, £35.95

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution is a thoughtful and instructive work that touches on many subjects including the complexities of modernity. The Abbé Grégoire (1750-1831) is presented as a key figure in late-Enlightenment thought and specifically in the development of enlightened religion, while the nature of the French Revolution is considered. Grégoire was certainly a player in the major drama of the latter. Depicted at the forefront of David's painting The Tennis Court Oath, Grégoire also presided over the Assembly during the storming of the Bastille and took a prominent role in pressing for the nationalization of the Catholic Church.

His scope was not restricted to ecclesiastical matters. Indeed Grégoire was the deputy who introduced the resolution abolishing the monarchy. Nor did the guillotine bring an abrupt close to his career. Instead, Grégoire was a new-found moderate in the late 1790s, before playing a prominent role in the opposition in the Napoleonic Senate.

Aside from assessing Grégoire's career, Sepinwall, Assistant Professor of History at California State University, San Marcos, uses him to assess first the intellectual origins of the French Revolution, specifically the relationship of Enlightenment to Christianity, secondly the Revolution's idea of universalism, and thirdly the contradictory legacy of the Revolution, specifically the extent to which its ideals could lead to oppression in the cause of regeneration.

This lasting legacy led the Germans to destroy his statue at Lunéville in 1942, while Le Pens Front National has also attacked his legacy, offering a reminder of the continuing resonance of the past.

In specific terms, Grégoire's attempts on behalf of Jews and against slavery made him a controversial figure. Concerned about the inhuman conditions of the slave trade and slavery, Grégoire by late 1789 decided that the colonies needed regeneration as urgently as the metropole, and he pressed his colleagues to apply the Declaration's universal language to all areas of the empire. Instituting racial equality, he argued, would be one of the key components in revitalising the colonies. Grégoire believed in integration, not separate development. As with the Jews, Grégoire suggested that a key means for the full regeneration of nonwhites would be through interracial marriage.

Other causes he supported included New World republicanism and the rights of Irish Catholics, but, in response to disenchantment with the Revolution, his faith in secular regeneration and in enlightened religion faded, and he came to argue that salvation could only come from the Church. In light of the latter, Grégoire came to argue that the groups he considered needed to adopt Catholicism and that a purified Catholicism was the answer to the world's problems.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).


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"In light of the latter, Grégoire came to argue that the groups he considered needed to adopt Catholicism ..."

How nice for them.

Not that I have anything against Roman Catholicism, but then I haven't against the beliefs of any indigenous peoples either. I *have* got something against intellectuals who always believe they know what's best for others - viz, a belief that they should mind their own business.

Posted by: Mike at January 13, 2006 05:24 PM
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